How Hard Is It to Make It As a Solo Practitioner?

Written by Willie Peacock
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How Hard Is It to Make It As a Solo Practitioner?

What do you think of when you hear “solo attorney”? A small-timer? A slick general practitioner? The truth is that solo and small firm practices are as varied as the people you met in law school. The occupation of solo attorney really is whatever you make it.

But how hard is it to make it as a solo practitioner? Well, how do you define “making it”? And what substantive areas of law do you want to practice? And are you happiest scaling exponential growth in a volume practice or handling a small set of high-value matters with extra care and attention? Starting a solo practice is easy—but to grow it and scale it is a far different matter.

injury law firm

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Why become a solo lawyer 

lawyer work life balance is a journey

Ask ten different lawyers their stories and they will give you probably ten different reasons for going into solo practice. I’ve heard things like, “I was tired of BigLaw,” “I didn’t want to work for someone else,” “I like helping people,” “My dad gave me his practice,” and “I wanted to make money.”

Last thing: It’s not the end of the world to start a practice, then fold it up. Many very happy lawyers I know got their start as a solo, then joined up with an established firm when they realized that they hated billing, marketing, H.R., business, etc.

Launching a solo practice demonstrates a passion for the profession, a willingness to work, and many other fine qualities that may land you a job with a firm that ignored you just a few years prior.

Is starting a solo law firm right for you?

Think about what’s important to you

lawyer work life balance

When figuring out how hard it is to make it as a solo practitioner, first consider what is most important to you. 

Look at your financial goals

For me, my benchmark was simple: Make more in solo practice in my first year that I did in the job I left. 

Then, I wanted to double my revenue each year from the prior year. He went $30k, $60k, $120k, $240k, $500k before leveling out running a fixed-fee volume-based practice. I’m currently on that same path since re-launching.

You’ll also need to look at your seed money that you want to invest in your legal practice and what profits you’ll need to make each year to continue growing your practice and supporting your family. 

Also, long before you launch, do the research. Listen to legal podcasts, read the legal and non-legal books everyone recommends, scope out the competition in your market, and set aside some funds for startup costs and to carry you for the dry months.

Ask yourself if it is the right time to start a solo practice

I’m going to be a little controversial here and say that there is never a perfect time to start a solo practice. 

But if your gut is saying that you have to do this, risks be damned, then you’ll probably have the passion to turn this into a real business when you run into obstacle, after obstacle, after obstacle. 

With all that said, there are some times that are terrible to launch a new venture. Yes, if you have significant medical bills, a new baby, or some other major life event happening, then you should postpone for now.

Consider an alternative legal career

Alternative career for lawyers

I’ve heard more than one attorney tell me that they went into solo practice because they hated BigLaw. Fair. But was it the firm? Or was it the law? Law can be a stressful, unrewarding profession at times.

If the practice of law is what excites you, and the work environment was what dragged you down, then by all means, go solo. But think really hard first and be certain that lawyering is the goal. Your JD can come in handy in so many other places:

  • Legal Content Writer: I have been a legal content writer, a marketing director for a multimillion-dollar law firm, and a marketing consultant for a portfolio of more than a dozen firms.
  • Legal Compliance: One of my best friends writes legal compliance documents for a major entertainment conglomerate’s intranet.

Legal tech: JD-toting startup founders are revolutionizing divorce, bankruptcy, legal research, intellectual property case filing, and so many other things right now.Decide on what practice areas to focus on.

Decide what practice area to focus on

Adding a practice area

Pick what you know, and pick a niche.

When I first went solo, I picked family law. I had worked an internship in the area during law school and liked how everything came together day-to-day.

The next time I went solo, I picked a weird niche practice that nobody else does and that approximately half of the population needs: Qualified domestic relations orders. That’s the retirement account division following the federal law after divorce.

The benefits of the latter strategy have been numerous:

  •  It was good business. There are maybe two dozen attorneys in the country who do this well. In New York City, if you ask Google, I am pretty much the only one. I also practice remotely back in California, and I am maybe one of a dozen there. Consider that nearly all people have retirement accounts and roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and you can see that there is a massive market opportunity there.
  • It worked well as a volume practice. Given my fascination with efficiency, software, and start-up principles, a growth-focused law firm that builds its own tools to scale legal practice, communication with clients, and excellent service while simultaneously scaling making actual money, was the sort of challenge I’m into. 
  • I loved the niche focus. A practice that focuses on post-judgment court orders that incorporate ERISA and state domestic relations law is above all interesting to me.

You should plan as much of this out as possible before going solo. And you need to be realistic: You may have to move more volume cases now. When you become a recognized expert in your field, leverage that experience to trim your caseload while maintaining your revenue.

Determine the tools you need to start off on the right foot

Check the cost of tools you currently use and like and see if it is something that a solo can bear. 

This is also a good opportunity to migrate from an old school platform, like Time Matters, that your prior firm forced you to use.

Most solos will be better off starting with a cloud-based legal practice management platform, like Clio. For tracking time, hourly billing, trust accounting, and sorting out client files, a do-it-all platform like that will save you immense amounts of time over trying to handle things with an Excel spreadsheet.

Typically, it all boils down to setting up demos with all of your options and taking a couple of hours with each to see which one fits your ideal vision of a practice and workflow.

How to set yourself up for success as a solo practitioner

Create a law firm business plan

writing a law firm business plan

If you are launching a law firm with no plan, your odds of success are going to be slim. 

With a business plan, you outline your goals, realistic projections for revenue and expenses, overhead, market and marketing strategies, and more. The plan serves as a loose map to success, one that you are free to deviate from, but which will likely redirect you back to the course time and again whenever those “issues” threaten to derail you.

Follow these steps to create a strong law firm business plan.

Create a long term budget

Photo of a law firm budget with a lightbulb

To run a successful solo law firm, you will eventually have to invest in marketing, support staff, software that makes you more efficient, as well as CLEs, malpractice insurance, bar dues, etc.

You’ll probably need to add in a budget for a law firm website, and budgets for ongoing advertising on Google and social media, or any other marketing you think will pay off. And don’t forget budgeting for support staff!

Learn how to create a law firm budget here.

Decide how you’re going to market your business

Image of a yellow graph on a blue background

The truth is, every firm and practice area will have a different path to marketing success. It might be LinkedIn advertisements and webinars to small businesses. It might be Facebook Ads with puppy dog faces talking about pet trusts.

Three things every successful law firm marketing campaign needs though are:

  1. Proper tracking. Every dollar that goes in, and every dollar that comes back in the form of client revenue, needs to be tracked and compared. 
  2. Willingness to experiment. It hurts to lose money on a marketing experiment, but if everything in marketing was a certainty, the three or four firms with the largest budgets would win every single time. Not every ad is going to resonate, not every social campaign is going to lead to lucrative cases, but if you have the guts to throw a couple hundred bucks at an experiment to gather data, you will identify a few winners that you can scale.
  3. Investment. There are a ton of great strategies for building an online marketing presence that involves unpaid channels: Maps listings and search engine optimization are the two most effective. But it takes years to build an authoritative presence that way. In the meantime, you still need clients, and that requires paid marketing.

Learn more about law firm marketing and creating a plan here.

Determine where you will work

Remote office setup

Many people questioned how the practice of law would change due to the pandemic. I’m not sure about lawyers and their ability to change. But I will say that clients have changed already. Remote work is the norm, and clients want to connect remotely.

If you need to work from home, most practice areas will be amenable to the idea, as will the clients these days. Consider saving yourself the office rent and building a virtual law firm instead, especially in the first year that you are in business.

Make sure you get malpractice insurance

Even if your state does not require it, malpractice insurance is a good idea. The insurance policy will provide you with an attorney and some financial backing if crap hits the fan.

If you are new to practicing solo, shop around and check with your local bar. Many policies will have extremely discounted rates for first and second-year solo attorneys. Sometimes, state and local bars will have discount programs as well for young lawyers.

Follow these steps to choose a legal malpractice insurance provider.

Consider contract or part-time work

Image of a clock with time for work, life, and exercise

Starting any new business is going to mean ebbs and flows of the cash flow. You might have one week where you bring in $13,000 in new business, followed by three or four weeks where you bring in zero dollars. 

Contract work is a great way to cushion the blow of irregular cash flow.

Consider doing some freelance attorney work on the side, or asking around to see if other lawyers in your network need help on big cases.

Name your law firm

Whatever you pick, make it memorable so that people searching for your business online can actually find you. Note: Be sure to check ethics rules around trade names for law firms in your jurisdiction.

Get more tips for naming your law firm here.

Register your business

You’ll probably need to register your business with your local government, and register for federal and state tax IDs, which really only takes a few minutes online these days.

Set up your bank accounts

Most practices will need at least a trust account and an operating account. Having them at the same bank makes it easy to transfer funds and to convince your bank to charge any and all banking fees to the operating account. 

Learn more about trust accounting for law firms here.

Announce your grand opening

Throw a mixer with family, friends, and professional networks. You want to make sure that everyone knows that you are open for business, as referrals really are the best source of quality cases.

Get started.

If reading this article already has your head swimming, that’s perfectly normal. Take a deep breath, maybe take a few days, and then ask yourself again whether you should become a solo attorney.

For me, no job has ever been as exciting as my career as an attorney. I really feel that the most happiness I have ever gained professionally has come from being a lawyer-prenuer. 

It’ll take planning, a budget, and more time than you ever expected to deal with the business side of things, but at the end of each day, you’ll know that all of the work you put in was towards building a business that is uniquely you. It’s hard to make it, but it’s absolutely worth it. 

Categorized in: Business

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